Interview with Sheeva Azma, Science Communicator

By Julie Ann Howlett

This blog was originally published on Julie Ann’s LinkedIn series profiling inspiring women. Check out the original article here.

In this Women in Tech article, I interview Sheeva Azma, a highly educated woman in science who takes part in science communications and science journalism. She actively writes for and manages the Fancy Comma blog here. Read below for much more!

Julie Ann: Hi Sheeva! It’s so great to have connected with you not only as a fellow woman in science but also as a fellow writer and analytical thinker. You launched and manage The Fancy Comma blog. Tell us – what was the inspiration for creating this blog?

Sheeva: Thanks! It’s an honor to be interviewed for this series. I founded Fancy Comma, LLC, in February 2020, just a couple of weeks before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. At the time, we were a fledgling science writing company, but our work could not have been more relevant to solving pandemic challenges.

I like to think of our blog as a place to talk about the intersections between writing, marketing, science, and society. So I started the Fancy Comma blog as a platform to discuss science communication or SciComm, as well as to talk about writing and marketing more generally. Over the past two years, we’ve been able to start accepting pitched guest posts, too.

Julie Ann: Love that! I also did not know “SciComm” was even an abbreviation, so that’s always interesting to learn.

Sheeva: Yes, it’s a whole thing – people who do science communication are called “SciCommers,” Check out #SciComm on Twitter! I am sure you have a lot to add to SciComm discussions as a science person, teacher, and marketer. 🙂

Julie Ann: Haha love it! I probably was unaware because I don’t use Twitter (largely because I am everywhere else). It makes sense there might be a microculture then of hashtags in this. What got you into science copywriting?

Sheeva: Believe it or not, I actually didn’t know I was a science copywriter until a few years into my career as a freelance science writer! While that sounds weird, it’s because scientists very rarely get any type of training in writing, especially for a general audience. When I left academic science in 2013, I worked on random odd writing jobs to make money while I applied to science jobs. As a newbie freelancer, I would unpack the latest neuroscience news for blogs or write web materials for high-tech companies. I didn’t know this was actually a field of marketing writing called science copywriting.

Julie Ann: Very cool. How would you clarify science copywriting for any noobs out there? 

Sheeva: Science copywriting is a type of writing at the intersection of science research and marketing. It’s meant for the general public, which makes it a lot different than the type of writing most scientists are used to. The word “copy” means “text” in marketing speak, and so science copywriting involves writing public-facing marketing text that can unpack complex science for the everyday reader.

Science copywriting is a type of writing at the intersection of science research and marketing.

Especially given the advances in biotechnology in the pandemic, science copywriters are needed to explain the science and make it accessible to everyday people.

Julie Ann: I know pharma is one big example of science copywriting. Interestingly, it seems this is done for the end consumer as either a recipient (i.e. taking the drug, ads you would see on TV or newspapers) but also at the level of communication with doctor’s themselves. I once was interviewed for something in which the copywriting was geared directly towards the divide between the prescription companies and the drugs themselves. It was illuminating to me, but perhaps is a really common practice in science comms.

Sheeva: I often work with biotech startups who need to explain their complex work to everyday people, patients, investors, and so on. It is rare to find marketers who are well-versed in science research, which means that scientists-turned-marketers, like us, have an advantage in the science copywriting space.

“It is rare to find marketers who are well-versed in science research, which means that scientists-turned-marketers, like us, have an advantage in the science copywriting space.” @SheevaAzma

Julie Ann: Excellent insight! I think science communication breaks down into effectively three arms: copywriting (as in for pharma), journalism, and then other forms of public-facing communication (lectures, research papers, conferences, etc.)

It’s so interesting how dissemination of knowledge and talking / sharing is such a vitally important pillar of the scientific method, yet I feel so many people are ill informed about that aspect. They think it’s only sitting in a lab room counting red and white eyed fruit flies. What do you think?

Sheeva: I agree with you that science happens a lot differently in practice than people think. Scientific advances are both a product of society and also tend to change society. So, leaving the general public out of the scientific process doesn’t make for good science. Science communication is essential not only to communicate information to the public, but also to help scientists understand each other better and to help develop interdisciplinary connections that can break down silos and advance science even more.

Julie Ann: Related to including the general public in science research, I enjoyed this post you wrote on Kun-kun and the MRI work they are doing of dog’s brains.

Photo of Kun-kun and Odin, two dogs that participate in MRI studies
Photo Source: Fancy Comma Blog & Dr. Laura Cuaya

What I really love about this researcher is the positive energy and openness they bring to their experimental design. It’s clear her dogs are having fun and well treated and in no way subject to any harm. I know it’s not always possible in some research labs, but what do you think other researchers could learn from Dr. Laura Cuaya’s approach here? Can research labs do a better job of increasing transparency and openness to include the public in what they do?

Sheeva: I loved speaking to Dr. Cuaya! A month or so before we published that blog, her research was all over the international media. Transparency and openness are foundational principles of communication.

The problem is that communicating research to the general public is usually not incentivized as much as, say, doing research, publishing papers, and of course, applying for grants to be able to do more research. So, usually SciComm, which does not often have immediate real-world results, is relegated to “outreach” activities, when it’s actually one of the most important things scientists can do.

Julie Ann: That makes so much sense and is so well stated. Perhaps in the light of the pandemic, the need for research and the race to the vaccines dominated the landscape. People that might ordinarily have been in generalized SciComms got swept up into that world.  It was kind of funny to see cellular biology diagrams I used to see in only my biology textbooks now crawling through my LinkedIn feed. What do you think?

Sheeva: The pandemic has changed the way I think about science communication. Observing the interplay between science and society in the pandemic, I now believe that science communication is just one part (though a very important part) of a larger science ecosystem.

It’s great to have scientists chiming in about the science of COVID-19, but in reality, everyone needs to be able to understand and critically evaluate science. The pandemic has shown that this is imperative for our survival as a world.

It’s tragic to see people die because they didn’t believe vaccines worked or believed that COVID-19 mitigation measures were a form of government control. I cannot describe how disappointing it is, as an MIT graduate, to see people in the United States acting in ways that are not in their best interest because science communication has failed to get through to them.

“I cannot describe how disappointing it is, as an MIT graduate, to see people in the United States acting in ways that are not in their best interest because science communication has failed to get through to them.” @SheevaAzma

Julie Ann: Is that really the fault of science communication, though? Ultimately people are people and they do have their own individual biases and free will choices to make. Ultimately, this was a very intensive and deep topic; it almost became political at multiple stages.

I think it’s always important to look at the growth and not the shortcomings and, if anything, I do think a lot more people are educated about virology and cellular biology than they have been before.

Sheeva: Moving past the pandemic, we need to analyze what science communications have worked – and what hasn’t worked. As marketers, perhaps we think that we don’t have a lot of influence in society, but I really believe that we do. A bright spot in the pandemic, as you noted, is that we have never been so science-literate as a society, which is amazing. The pandemic, though devastating, has also catalyzed new scientific discoveries, like mRNA vaccine technology and new antiviral treatments.  

“As marketers, perhaps we think that we don’t have a lot of influence in society, but I really believe that we do.” @SheevaAzma

Julie Ann: Absolutely! It’s remarkable mRNA has broken through into a general public audience at this time. Dipping back a bit into gender and STEM, I know one thing you and I have talked about is navigating this perception of intimidating people because we are “too smart”. For example, I myself have done neuroscience research but rarely talk about it – or frankly put it on my resume – because I have found people just “don’t know what to do with it”. I actually had a school principal tell me that once to my face. I can still recall his look as he peered over my resume where I detailed out what that research was. He read it, then looked up at me as if to say “umm…wtf is this part?”

I think we as women in science need to learn that, ultimately, that is their problem not ours if they feel intimidated by these kinds of things. It’s not our job to explain away our intelligence, but to own it. How have you encountered this in your own life as a woman in STEM?

Sheeva: As women, we constantly have to prove ourselves in ways that men do not. We are judged for things like how we dress and the words we say at a level that not only holds us back but leaves us with a lot of emotional baggage. It can be exhausting to try to figure out the “right” way to present yourself. Sadly, though, I’ve seen it happen really often, in tons of different ways.

I’ve worked in science and in politics – two industries notorious for sexism – and my key to success has been to avoid downplaying my accomplishments (even if other people don’t understand them). I think that people who downplay women’s accomplishments sometimes don’t even realize they are doing that.

Julie Ann: What’s an example where you have felt someone downplaying women’s accomplishments in science without really knowing they are doing it?

Sheeva: I can totally relate to people being perplexed by your resume. Once, at a job interview, my interviewer scoffed at the fact that I was part of the MIT Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. I felt really weird about it, so I removed it from my resume. It’s kind of sad, in a way, since removing that item from your resume makes it seem like you don’t have that experience. At the time, it seemed like a better idea to avoid people’s weird backlash to that item than to have an additional item listed on my resume. After I left science, I actually added it back! Since then, I’ve written a lot about space exploration, environment, aviation, and aerospace as a freelance science writer.

To me, this problem goes back to the idea that women in science are scrutinized to a higher standard than their male counterparts.

Especially as a woman MIT graduate, I am really interested in figuring out ways to elevate women in STEM in meaningful ways. One obvious step, to me, is to advocate for culture change in science workplaces to make them less toxic.

Julie Ann: Most definitely! What is one thing that you would do to change culture in the science workplace if you could have influence to do so there?

Sheeva: Valuing trainees’ personal lives and mental health would help end toxic science culture. Long hours and low pay make it difficult for people to thrive in science. Abuses are also rampant in this type of broken system. I have heard some really terrible horror stories.

Julie Ann: And, how do you think people could become more able to make influences there? Perhaps through state or federal politics? Curious to hear your thoughts here ❤

Sheeva: State and federal policy can play a huge role in improving science culture. One of the earliest efforts I remember was legislation sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier which would make it difficult for noted abusers in academia to move from institution to institution, evading their bad reputation, every time a new scandal happens. While that law didn’t pass, it helped develop momentum to hold scientists accountable for their actions. Recently, there have been many high-profile cases of scientists being fired from their institutions because they committed a sexist or racist act. While it’s tough to see some of our most well-loved scientists fall from grace, they cannot be allowed to abuse the system, destroying entire careers – and lives – in the process.

Julie Ann: Another bias I discovered while I was a science teacher was this perception of “science is scary” or “too much for me”. There’s also a huge (still present) gender bias in science, where people equate scientists as the crazy haired Albert Einstein type. Did you ever come across those assumptions when you were in school?

Sheeva: I actually have been really lucky to have been supported in my science education my whole life! I agree, though, that stereotypes definitely do not help advance gender equity in science.

It’s only been in recent years that society is finally starting to recognize the achievements of women and minorities in science and technology. The movie Hidden Figures is a really good example of that. I am optimistic that science historians will pay more attention to the historical contributions of marginalized people in science and elevate them.

Julie Ann: Good call out! For me, being a science major did affect my social life, and there was a running joke on campus that the business majors could coast through their classes whereas we could never (funny how now I am very much more involved in business than science haha). More potently though, I actually had a huge power struggle go down with my genetics professor my senior year of undergrad. He almost prevented me from graduating! I touched upon it very lightly in an interview I did for Diversify Tech here. He – having written the genetics textbook – believed he was the sole authority on everything. I ended up having to involve my department chair (who was female) in rallying for my cause. After a lot of emotional turmoil, the situation did come to a (somewhat) satisfactory end. However, it didn’t change the fact he absolutely DESTROYED my research / scientific paper at the end… no doubt out of spite.

Sheeva: Wow, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Even Katalin Kariko, one of the scientists who helped develop mRNA vaccines, was repeatedly demoted and even fired over the course of her career. What’s up with that? Women in science have silently dealt with these problems for a really long time. We are reaching a turning point in society where these actions are no longer accepted as the norm. 

Julie Ann: Indeed. I really love this part of the article:

“I listened to the constructive criticism because I like to get the advice, but when it was just not that constructive, that I ignored,” she said.”

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. She is definitely an inspirational woman in science and am grateful for you sharing this – especially since I myself am from an Eastern European heritage and can relate to some of the things she shared.

Sheeva: Improving equity in science matters for so many reasons, not the least of which is that science is shaped by the people who perform it.

If you have a team of health researchers who are male, they may not spend any time studying health conditions that affect women – not because they don’t want to, but because it might not have ever occurred to them. So, amplifying women and minorities in STEM is really important to make science more inclusive and better able to help everyone.

“Improving equity in science matters for so many reasons, not the least of which is that science is shaped by the people who perform it.” @SheevaAzma

Julie Ann: Absolutely! Key policies and inventions are made by people in tech and science and we need a diversity of mindsets represented there. One of the graduate courses I had to take during my teaching masters was this crazyyyyyy boring class (largely due to the professor and just sheer lack of any visuals or enrichment) on the sociological and historical underpinnings of science. One of the biggest takeaways I took from that was this very thing. It never occurred to me that there’s this inherent bias that could come from certain genders studying certain topics. I have specific examples for anyone who feels called to listen! Haha 

What advice would you give future women in tech who are interested in pursuing science communications?

Sheeva: There is no established career path for science communicators, so if you want to work in this field, be prepared to learn most things on your own. While this can be a bit lonely at times, there are some organizations like the National Association of Science Writers, The Open Notebook, and Boston University SciCommers that provide ways to connect. Also, Sheril Kirshenbaum’s TEDx Talk is a great one on the topic of Science Communication! Finally, our blog posts on the topic.

Julie Ann: Excellent! I am sure everyone will appreciate those resources. I will drop that TedTalk link directly below too for all to see.

Julie Ann: Adding to this discussion, I absolutely love the Real Scientist Twitter Talk post you did here. I highly recommend for anyone reading this to check it out, as it’s very illuminating. Here’s a screenshot from that experience for all to get a teaser:

Screenshot of a tweet
Source: Fancy Comma Blog, Sheeva Azma

Julie Ann: Where’s the best place for people to find out about all these great things you share?

Sheeva: We have written a ton of blogs about science communications and science copywriting over at the Fancy Comma blog, so check it out! You can subscribe to our blog at www.fancycomma.com/blog/posts. We also have a newsletter on Substack: https://fancycomma.substack.com. People can also pitch to our blog at fancycomma.com/write-for-us too.

Julie Ann: What are shoutouts to two women and/or organizations who helped you along the way?

Sheeva: I probably don’t have space to list all of the amazing people who have helped me along the way in my career. Two fearless women I look up to are Nidhi Parekh and Monisha Arya, who are both science, and more specifically, health communicators.

Nidhi Parekh@TheSharedScope

Monisha Arya@AryaCommunications

Julie Ann: How can people get in touch with you? Link us away! (limit to top 3 places)

Sheeva: www.fancycomma.com, www.sheevaazma.com, and www.twitter.com/fancycomma

Julie Ann: Great, thanks so much Sheeva for your time!

Sheeva: Thanks for interviewing me!

About Julie Ann: With a background in science, teaching and entrepreneurship, Julie Ann has areas of specialty spanning multiple fields including edtech, marketing, data analytics and more. Reach out to her on LinkedIn via customized note or drop a comment below!

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